Wednesday, 12 October 2011

The secret life of PhD

Here is what I hate about my job:

1.     It’s always there. It’s never over, until, of course, it is over, on the very last day, when the thesis is printed and bound. Until then, you never feel that you’ve worked enough, because there’s always more to be done and you could always have worked harder. In my world, it seems to be always Friday 5pm (British Library closing time) but never the weekend; it’s like Narnia, where it’s always winter, but never Christmas.

2.     Secondly, it is not, in fact, as a sibling took pains to point out to me, a ‘proper job’. A proper job, sibling said, is where you offer a service to an organization or an individual, and this service makes them money. Blah, blah, blah. Anyway, sibling is right. It is not a proper job, it is studying.

3.     People assume you never have to do any work. I’m not sure where they get this from (do they not know what a PhD is?) Therefore, just because your job involves organizing your hours and so on, people assume you’re free for lunch or coffee at any hour of the day, and if you say ‘no, sorry, I have to work’, they don’t believe you. Mums get slightly irate when you tell them that you can’t take a long weekend to go and see them and help with the cleaning, and suspiciously question you over your student teaching hours: it’s the summer holidays now, isn’t it?... If you tell people you are stressed, some of them actually smile and say they’re glad you SOMETIMES have to do some hard work. They. Just. All. Don’t. GET IT.

4.     The job itself. Did I mention that? The job itself is boring. I like my subject, and I like it well enough, but I am finding I would rather write a trashy novel or make a film about it than write a PhD on it. Or perhaps base an interpretative dance on it. Or sing a song.

5.     The constant feeling of guilt. The overwhelming, nagging, unbearable, weighing-down-on-you guilt. If I’m not spending time with my boyfriend or my family because I choose to stay in and really work on the PhD, then I feel like a bad girlfriend, bad daughter, and bad friend. But if I go away with my boyfriend for Bank Holiday weekend, or go see my mum for the afternoon, or agree to a coffee date at 3pm with a sister who is passing through town (because, hell, after all life is supposed to contain fun sometimes), then I feel bad too. Bad student, bad worker, bad PhD. In this ‘job’ (which, cf. above, is not even a job), you feel guilty if you have not worked on it all the hours that God gives, and then some.

Let’s start with the guilt.

Yesterday I cried, because I was packing for a long birthday weekend with the Boy (his birthday, not mine). Planned in advance, plenty of warning. Yet, being a last-minute person, and feeling pretty uninspired about my PhD at the time (boredom; maybe I should have started with boredom), I had, despite having worked for weeks, reading and writing and making notes – not come up with anything worthy of a chapter, and therefore not written the piece that I had wanted to send to the Prof. It’s not because I hadn’t had time; my cat didn’t die; there had been no personal disaster. I just hadn’t been able to stomach writing this chapter, so I put it off and put it off, until here I was, with the last minute looming, and I realise that I am going away for a 3-day weekend with the Boy. And because I always seem to get myself into this kind of pickle (long, sleepless, stressy night spent writing a substandard piece so that I can put a tick on the college deadlines’ list) I got so fed up with myself that I burst into tears. For fuck’s sake, I thought, I should be better at this by now. I sobbed to myself, standing amid half-packed rucksacks.

This is how low I have got, and this is how my PhD makes me feel pretty much every time I get to do something fun; I panic and think, if only I could spend this time on my PhD! So I cried, and I cried, and eventually I had to finish packing and run for the door, and I arrived at the station, a cool and collected girlfriend, charming in a summer frock, waiting for the Boy. And as he came over, I smiled at him and he smiled at me. And I kept smiling all the way to our destination, and never breathed a word about how annihilated I had felt that day. He shouldn’t be punished just because I’m rubbish and a bad student, and probably a step away from being a bad girlfriend too.

I was in the station gift shop briefly, buying gift wrap before meeting the beloved, and the shop assistant, a blonde young guy, asked me quite nicely, ‘Are you okay?’ He couldn’t have known that half an hour previously I had been wiping away tears on the bus. He was just making conversation, that was all.

I looked at him. It was not possible to lie. He had just unintentionally lifted a little corner of my soul, and looked into what was inside.

‘You’re asking me if I’m okay?’ I said, staring him in the face, in what I now hope wasn't a creepy way. ‘Well, I am actually having the worst day ever.’

‘Oh no! why?’ he asked. I wasn’t about to dump on him the full extent of my grief, but it felt good to let a little of it out. So I paraphrased. ‘I hate travelling!’ I told him, ‘and I’m feeling very stressed.’ He nodded sympathetically at the debit card machine. ‘Oh, I KNOW’, he said, ‘I’m the same.’ He commiserated. And I felt better for having shared a tiny bit of my pain, if not all: I hate travelling because I am a rubbish PhD student and I should be locked in a room and made to write non-stop, because I am a bad researcher and a bad person too.

Right. Angry Rant over. I’m sure there is a way to do this PhD; I guess I must be simply doing it wrong.

Bank Holiday weekend. The Boy slept on with the innocence of youth (habit of a legitimately employed person without a PhD to write, I suppose); I, of course, was wide awake by eight, planning chapters in my head. I dared not move in case I woke him up. This bed is one of those things where, if one of you tries to get up and leave, the other gets woken up. So I stayed still and lay there, listening to the Boy breathing, frustrated with myself at not being able to sleep, wishing I had remembered to put my book by the bed so I could reach for it and at least get some reading done. I lay still and counted the hours slipping by.

And as I lay there, I guess, I had time to think about things, about how all my life I have done things at the last minute, under pressure and under stress, and how, although I hate it, somehow it always worked out. And I felt glad that I have a weekend off, a boyfriend who loves me, and… I guess the rest will get done somehow. It will take stress and the odd sleepless night, but one day it will be over, and at least I’ve had some good times along the way.

When the Boy eventually woke up (my fault; after two hours of lying there I needed the loo desperately) and found me back in bed, he smiled, said good morning, and then went back to sleep, this time holding my hand. Once again I was trapped, unable to move, my book too far away; but it didn’t matter.

I am writing this blog for one reason only: to moan about my PhD. If this seems self-indulgent, or boring, or wrong, sorry; that’s because it is. I don’t care. I am writing this blog so I have some way of moaning about my PhD, and this is because I can’t talk to anyone about it. My boyfriend shouldn’t have to hear about this. My family likewise. They are good people, honest, kind people; they did not deserve this treatment. My friends are kind people and they mean well, but they respond to my moaning all wrong: they say things like ‘it’s only for one more year!’, whereas sometimes I feel so low that what I need to hear is stuff like, oh, NO. Poor dear. How awful. Poor, poor you. You cried for how long?... They all think having flexible hours and working from home should be enough to make anyone happy, and therefore they don’t really identify with this PhD-induced depression.

Nor can I talk to other PhD students, or indeed my Prof. You can’t bitch to fellow professionals about how much you hate the job, and how bad you think you are at it. Especially as there are aspects of this job I do like, and I am good at – for example the teaching. What if a teaching job comes up, and I miss out because they all know that I once said that there’s some things that I am not very good at? No-one wants to be known as the person writing a blog about how unhappy their job makes them.

Someone once said that, in life, we are always looking for one of three things: the perfect apartment, the perfect job, or the perfect partner. And if one of those things is missing, then we are not happy with just having the other two. In the eyes of the world, I have it all: I have a man who loves me, a warm flat to live in, and I have this intellectually-stimulating, good-sounding job which pays the bills. I have it all. I am not allowed to complain.

But I’m unhappy and I have to tell someone about it. Let this blog be my low-budget therapy. Dear Blog…

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